Regional Planning in the Great Lakes

Is blue the new green? This is part of the vision of the new regional plan for the Great Lakes Region by the architectural and design firm Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM), whose architecture has put a stamp on the Chicago skyline, from the Willis (Sears) tower and John Hancock Center.

Recognizing a Global Resource” is a 100-year vision for the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River region whose primary goal is to improve water quality and use the lakes themselves as the central resource to drive environmental protection and economic growth.“I think many of the cities in the Great Lakes are interested in how to look at water as a developing industry,” Philip Enquist, director of urban design and planning at SOM said in a blog post at Atlantic Cities. “Taking water out, using it for industry, filtering it, then returning it. That’s different from now, where we use it, treat it like waste, and dump it into the Mississippi River.”

The region faces many challenges to development including agricultural and urban runoff into the lakes, but also sprawl, congestion, and unplanned growth. But as the plan notes, its biggest challenge may be the impetus to plan regionally, to as Nate Berg at Atlantic Cities says “define the region by the lakes themselves and, not the various cities, states and countries that rely upon them.”

Planning regionally is always seriously ambitious, but here, with almost 15,000 municipal jurisdictions in the region, the scale is gigantic and the firm should be commended for getting the ball rolling.

Besides being home to a very precious resource – the lakes contain over 20% of the world’s freshwater and 84% of North America’s water – the region is also home to 105 million people who live in eight U.S. states, two Canadian provinces, on 58 Indian reservations, and 87 First Nation’s reserves. The thought of planning across such regional jurisdictions makes one dizzy.

Any yet, according to a post at the Brooking Institution, the region’s economy “has everything it needs to be the engine of the next economy of the U.S. and Canada,” if in fact they can collaborate.

Despite some stereotypes those of us who live on the coasts may have about the Midwest, experts say the economic opportunity there, despite the Great Recession is still very rich.

Writing at Brookings, in an op-ed entitled “The Great Lakes Can Lead the World” Bruce Katz and Josh Hjartarson say the region is one of the largest economies in the world, which generated $4.6 trillion in economic output in 2009 alone and “more than $2 billion worth of goods and services cross the U.S.-Canada border every day.”  Manufacturing adds to this output. The Midwest region produces nearly 33% of U.S. manufacturing and 75% of total Canadian manufacturing.

Brookings’ Great Lakes Economic Initiative, which tracks recession and recovery in the region’s largest cities, shows that the Great Lakes metropolitan areas in general are enjoying a strong recovery. Detroit in particular is showing a strong recovery (we’ve written about the promising partnerships and investments in Detroit for strong future development).

Katz and Hjartarson point out that in addition to the world’s demand for clean water, the region is home to major research universities and leading corporate research labs, which provide training grounds for innovation and growth.

Richard Longworth, at the Global Midwest Initiative, writes extensively on the region’s potential. In a recent blog post Longworth highlighted some of the regional planning efforts already going on in the Midwest that he says are “sprouting like corn in June.” His list is long and includes efforts going on all over the region like a project working to develop the bioscience industry by linking 35 counties in southern Minnesota to the Hormel and Mayo research institutions in Austin and Rochester.

Longworth calls for “information sharing and cross-pollination” to prevent all of these projects from occurring in a vacuum.

To capitalize on assets like these and realize their economic potential, Katz says, cities need to plan regionally, to retrain industrial workers to transition to the green economy, and most importantly, jurisdictions need to work collaboratively.

The resources in this region are precious and fragile. “People see how vast the Great Lakes are and mistake that vastness for invincibility” Cameron Davis, the EPA’s senior advisor on the Great Lakes Region, says in SOM’s plan.

The plan Skidmore, Owings and Merrill have laid out by addressing water, energy, the environment, agriculture, urban planning, industry, tourism, education and more is an important start.

You can read the planning documents here. And watch Enquist discuss the project in this TEDx talk.

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